Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.
Today I want to launch a new type of talent show. It’s not the X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent or even Strictly. I’m calling it ‘Your Community Needs You’.
Because next year, on May 5th, around 31 million people will have the right to vote in local elections.
But for democracy to thrive, people need to see the point in voting.
So we need talented community champions to have their names on those ballot papers.
And I thought to myself, where better to launch this search for talent than right here in my constituency.
At the excellent Bishops Hatfield Girls’ School - with this group of talented young people and their equally talented parents.
I know that you’ve been working hard on school projects to make a difference - campaigning for a rural bus, supporting our local hospital and even something as small, but as important, as redecorating the school toilets!
I think I’m right in saying the parents are getting roped in too!
I’m really pleased that some of you are getting involved as youth councillors.
That is the sort of talent, the kind of get-up-and-go attitude that we also need from people standing for election as your local Councillors.
School gate mums and dads
I’ve spotted this talent in the mums and dads who meet at the school gate, not just here but across the country.
Yes, they spend time chatting and socialising - or even grabbing a quick coffee.
But they’re finding out what’s going on.
Discussing what needs doing.
And then they go do it.
They throw themselves into getting their friends and neighbours to help run school events.
They organise the PTA, volunteer as Governors, run the after school clubs and share the school run.
And they’re networked like never before.
Savvy about using the new technology.
They BBM on their Blackberries, text, and organise themselves using Facebook.
Keeping everyone up to date on what’s going on.
Juggling competing priorities, and working together to solve complex logistical problems.
Or to put it another way - and, in technical terms, they make sure their kids are in the right place at the right time.
But on top of that, they’re often the local activists - at the heart of their communities.
If a school fete needs organising, or the football team need transport - they sort it.
They have energy.
They’re exactly the sort of people the country need to become councillors.
Not a ‘Dads Army’ but a new army of mums and dads who get things done.
Role of councillors
But I suspect for many school gate mums and dads becoming a councillor is the last thing on their minds.
And I don’t blame them.
They might want things to change in their community but becoming a politician? Come off it!
Aren’t politicians all the same - more interested in political point scoring than in their community.
Telling people what the other lot haven’t done rather than making things happen themselves.
Actually, sadly, I think that this has all too often been true.
Politics has become a turn off.
But that’s a real shame as I think we should, in theory, hold our local Councillors in high esteem.
After all, they’re the foundation of our democracy.
They volunteer to do a really tough job with little reward and usually little thanks either.
Indeed most people, and by this I do quite literally mean the majority, don’t even bother to vote for them.
Now for all this to change - for our democracy to work better - voting needs to make a difference.
So, why hasn’t it made a difference in the past? Because Councillors have been tied down by red tape. Held back by Whitehall bureaucracy. Stuck in meaningless meetings, countless committees, senseless scrutiny panels and the silly standard boards.
Being a Councillor is a pretty thankless task that sapped the energy, passion and enthusiasm out of even committed people.
There has been a steady erosion of power of ward councillors over the years and I am, truly, full of admiration for the Councillors who have struggled on.
The best have continued to champion their communities despite all the odds.
Well, the times they are a changing.
In the last six months a quiet revolution has been taking place in Town and City Halls across the country.
The new Coalition Government is shedding power.
From Whitehall to your Town Hall.
From Downing Street to your street.
And now radical legislation - the Localism Bill - to be published shortly, will put councillors at the heart of their communities.
They will have more clout than ever before to get things done for the people they serve.
In the past if people voted for you because, for example, you opposed a new development, you couldn’t represent their views when it was discussed by the Council.
Why? Because you’d had the audacity to express an opinion about the new development and under some crazy rules you excluded yourself from making a decision.
That’s not only barmy its anti-democratic.
This bonkers rule was called ‘pre-determination’ and we’re determined to scrap it.
We’re also abolishing the discredited Standards Boards. They fuelled petty and malicious complaints against councillors.
And we’ll allow councils, if they wish, to return to the Committee system of local government.
This can mean more councillors being involved in decision-making.
We’re giving Councillors and communities more freedom to decide how to spend the people’s cash.
In some areas, like here in Welwyn Hatfield, Councillors are given control over local budgets to spend. Really good.
But in other areas they are going even further.
Neighbourhood control of budgets will give Councillors a central role in helping people decide on funding for a whole range of local public services.
Whether that’s local policing, community health, how we look after families with multiple problems, or creating local jobs.
The whole shebang will be up for grabs.
So becoming a Councillor is going to become more important than ever before.
That’s why I’m launching ‘Your Community Needs You’.
I know there are lots of talented people already playing their part getting things done across the country - school mums and dads are just one example.
So lots of people should audition.
People who are active in their church, or in their temple, mosque or synagogue.
People who run local charities, or sports clubs.
People with disabilities running a local self-help group.
Residents who are building the big society even when life’s an uphill battle.
They all have talent, practical experience and a sense of civic responsibility.
Not to mention the passion and, yes, sometimes the anger to get things done.
And I’d like them to think about becoming local councillors too.
You may be thinking, yes, that’s for me but what’s the first step?
It’s simple - just go online and google “How to be a Councillor”.
You will quickly find the ‘Be a Councillor’ website created by the Local Government Association.
It contains all the info you need.
And if you succeed you will be able to change things.
That playground at the end of the street that needs new equipment.
That bus service that should run, but doesn’t.
The youth services that could be improved.
The bin collections that get your blood boiling.
And there are even bigger things that you may be able to influence.
If you think the neighbourhood needs more housing, better shops, or a community centre then you will be involved in making the decisions.
Under our Localism Bill neighbourhoods will be in charge of their own plans.
I know this talent show might be less glamorous than the X factor but if you win, you will be able to make real changes to real lives.
And to be honest, over the years, I have been doing some early talent scouting for ‘Your Community Needs You’.
As a local politician I knock on hundreds of doors and meet thousands of people.
And often they’re passionate about what’s happening to their community.
Sometimes, I come across people who I think would make brilliant local councillors.
And I’ll suggest that they consider standing for election.
Usually they look at me as if I’m mad.
But when I knocked on Fiona Thomson’s front door a few years back I made that suggestion.
And she took my advice.
Fiona is now an outstanding local councillor right here in Welwyn Hatfield. And she’s here today.
She’s a school mum - perhaps not the sort of person who usually gets elected as a councillor.
But Fiona’s the sort of talented individual we need.
She’s great at keeping in touch with people.
Being a community champion.
And we need more Fionas.
That is why I am here today and why I’m going on MumsNet later.
If you do decide to take the stage, it will be a tough competition.
There are already many talented councillors out there.
The electorate will be asked to cast their votes next May.
But the auditions for ‘Your Community Needs You’ begin today.